July 4, 2018

Bill Watrous, 1939-2018

From the left: Wendell Brunious, Dennis Mackrel, Jerome Richardson, Keter Betts, Monk Rowe, Bill Watrous, Rick Montalbano

Readers may have noticed my absence from writing this blog. All my spare time has been spent preparing uploads for the Fillius Jazz YouTube channel, where complete interviews have been posted for more than half of our oral history sessions. The death of Bill Watrous, however, has returned me to the blog. My interview with Bill, viewable here, was comprehensive and congenial, but there is more backstory to be shared about my association with him.
In the spring of 1999, in true cosmic fashion, Bill’s promo kit arrived unexpectedly on my desk just as I was seeking a trombone player to participate on my upcoming recording of “Jazz Life.” This album of original compositions would eventually include myself plus six members, three of whom are now deceased: bassist Keter Betts, saxophonist Jerome Richardson, and now trombonist Bill Watrous. Rounding out the ensemble were Rick Montalbano, Dennis Mackrel and Wendell Brunious. Before I started the archive project I had always assumed that artists of the stature of Bill Watrous would be unavailable to me. However, every artist I contacted happily agreed to the engagement. I learned along the way that jazz musicians always have dates in their calendars to fill, and a gig is a gig. Bill proved to be full of positive energy as well as the consummate musician. He entertained the group with his personal cache of jazz stories, while treating the music as if he was in an L.A. recording studio. One of my favorite moments on the recording is during the improvisation section of BeyondCategory at the 2:34 mark where Bill seamlessly extends Wendell’s last improvised phrase, then launches into his own striking solo. As trumpeter Joe Wilder said of improvisation, you always want to make a smooth transition, as perfectly exemplified in this moment.
Our paths crossed again at jazz conventions, and over the years we exchanged phone calls where our lengthy conversations extended beyond music and into the ups and downs of everyday life. Oddly enough, Bill’s wife Maryanne occasionally referred to Bill as “Monk.”
Bill’s passing caught me off-guard. He always struck me as younger than his years, probably due to his distinctive Price Valiant haircut, penchant for jean jackets, and his poignant observations on current events. Adios Mr. Watrous, and thank you for our friendship.